Landscape Ecology and Green Design

Thanks to Arlene Gould of York University, I was invited to do a presentation at the IIDEX/NEOCON Design conference, on September 25/08 at Exhibition Place in Toronto. I met several fascinating architects working on green design, and presented some points on landscape ecology and green design. This is the talk I gave. These are the powerpoint slides that accompanied the talk. You will see they are fairly minimalist...

Thank you for the opportunity to talk to you today. For the past two years I have been teaching in York University's Urban Ecologies Certificate Program, which has a design component. It used to have a bigger design component when it was founded, under a different name, the Ecological Landscape Design Certificate Program, when Michael Hough taught at York.

Michael Hough is a very insighftul thinker on these issues. Two of the main insights I would take from his work are:

1.Cities are living systems that have natural processes occuring in them and through them, and;
2.There are more of these processes, and there is more to them, than meets the eye.

These are elements of an ecological approach to design, which has a bit of literature, including Van Der Rym and Cowan's “Ecological Design” and Thompson and Sorvig's “Sustainable Landscape Construction”. I would recommend these highly. In my own remarks I want to say a few words about ecology and its implications for green design.

Ecology actually has a number of meanings. In science, ecology is a subdiscipline of biology. Biology is the science of life. Ecology is about the relationships between organisms – it is the science of interactions, of communities and populations. Landscape ecology, which I teach, as a scientific field, is about the influence of spatial pattern on living systems.

There are two powerful ideas in landscape ecology: scale and context. For designers, this means thinking about the wider world in which a building (or other designed project) is embedded. The trees that line a street or dot a park are habitat for migrating birds. Certain grasses (lupins), if they are the right native ones, are food sources for rare butterflies (like the Karner blue). A series of small planted patches can reduce the amount of impermeable surface and improve the hydrology of a watershed quite a lot. Building with prevailing winds, slopes, hydrology, and indigenous vegetation in mind pays off ecologically.

Landscape ecologists will study a landscape through data about it – a soil map, a vegetation map, a set of numbers about populations or sampled vegetation. A typical view of a place might be an aerial or satellite photograph – a view that is more and more commonly taken with tools like Google Earth widely available. These data are used in models and the models are used to describe and predict processes, including changes in wildlife populations and flows of materials through a system.

In looking at a place as habitat, or as a part of some ecological cycle, Barry Commoner's four rules of ecology are useful. These are:

1.Everything is connected to everything else
2.Everything must go somewhere
3.Nature knows best
4.There is no such thing as a free lunch

Ecology's criticism of non-green design would be that it is an abstracted, linear system. Abstracted because it often ignores social, ecological, biophysical context. Linear because it doesn't close cycles: instead, resources are mined, made into some product that is consumed or used, and then becomes waste, which is disposed of. In ecological systems every input becomes an output to some other process. That's what designers McDonough and Braungart argue in their book 'Cradle to Cradle' – that having any waste at all is a failure of design, that everything we build should have a life, and at the end of its life, become part of the next process.

In an ecological view, the individual elements of a green design – solar panels, wind turbines, green roofs, composting toilets, “living machines” for water purification, passive solar lighting and heating – are combined, and these combinations are combined with other things going on in the city (or community). A building is a part of a watershed – and could have a positive effect on it. It is part of an energy grid – and could contribute positively to the electricity system, at times. It is part of a materials economy. Its materials could be safe and returned to that economy downstream. It might be part of the urban forest, part of habitat for wildlife. But if it is located so far from public transit that people have to drive (or fly) to it, much of its value has been lost.

One example of this that McDonough and Braungart were involved in, as well as John Todd and David Orr, is the Lewis Center at Oberlin College, described in some detail in Orr's books The Nature of Design and Design at the Edge.

I would conclude with a few words about the social context. Design is an essentially positive and optimistic activity, it seems to me. The analysis of the context requires a more critical lens. And design choices can sometimes include tradeoffs, or even organizing to overcome resistance. A safer, healthier, more humane world for everyone (including non-humans) is not, unfortunately, desired by everyone. The right choices might be compatible with the narrow agendas of the powerful, but they might not. They are, however, worth fighting for.